The warm and cozy smell of wood draws you in immediately when entering the boat shop at the Alexandria Seaport. It is a place where 19th-century boats like “The Whitehall” are being restored with almost affectionate love for detail.
“You have to get inventive”, Larry, one of the boat makers explains. “We can replace the wooden parts but it’s tricky to restore the metal details on a boat that old”. The Whitehall was one of the leading row boats in 19th-century Europe and at the time, was also used by watertaxi operators on the Thames in London.
The small but busy boat shop pulls you into an era when commercial fishing was still an adventure like in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick”. Right behind the shop sits an old whaleboat just like the one, Captain Ahab was using in his treacherous pursuit of the great white whale.
“It’s about seeing the result of your own hands’ work”, Gary says. He started as a boat builder at the shop about a year ago after retiring from a university teaching position as a chemical engineer. “I used to deal with a lot of people and many times, things just didn’t get done. Now, I can get things done.”
It took him and about 4 others several months to restore a historic whaleboat now moored right in the back of the shop. “You build a wooden backbone first, then a rib frame just like in a human body”, Larry explains. Oak is perfect for the boat’s skeleton, softer cedar wood that has been steam-bent and air-dried works best for the body.
“I still remember when we finally put that whaleboat in the water”, Larry says with a sparkle of excitement in his eyes. “I used to work as a manager for a corporation, it was a desk job and I liked it but seeing a boat you built with your own hands actually being released in the water is truly rewarding! ”
He and Gary work at the boat shop 4 days a week. It is volunteer work and they love it because it is a place of honest, physical labor without the distraction of modern day smart phones, endless meetings or a constant flow of emails. It’s a place where life slows down and becomes real.
In addition to restoring antique boats, the volunteer ship builders here also give back to society. The shop offers an apprentice program for disadvantaged youth. The Alexandria Seaport Foundation helps young adults at risk of failing in school or in their life to find direction and purpose through learning carpentry skills and boat building.
For more information visit: The Alexandria Seaport Foundation